WELCOME TO IWPR'S REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA, No. 476 part 1, December 21, 2006

TURKMENISTAN - END OF AN ERA  Officials convene emergency meeting to manage 
what may be a difficult transition.  By IWPR staff in London and Central Asia

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TURKMENISTAN - END OF AN ERA

Officials convene emergency meeting to manage what may be a difficult 
transition.

By IWPR staff in London and Central Asia

The death of Saparmurat Niazov, Turkmenistan’s first and only president, has 
left a gaping hole in a political system that was constructed almost entirely 
around him. 

With little really known about the inside workings of Niazov’s administration - 
not least because regular purges created a massive turnover of ministers - 
analysts in the region have been left guessing about who might take over, and 
whether the transition will be peaceful.

Niazov liked to be called Turkmenbashi or “Leader of the Turkmen” and won 
international notoriety for his eccentric policies, but inside the country his 
regime was less of a joke, combining poor economic management, arbitrary cuts 
to health and other essential services and the stamping out of real or 
perceived sources of opposition. For most Turkmen citizens, the president’s 
white-elephant construction projects had no relevance and there was little sign 
of the “Golden Age” he insisted he had created for them.

Niazov’s death was announced on state television on December 21 after he 
suffered a heart attack overnight. The country went into official mourning 
pending a funeral scheduled for December 24, which will follow the Muslim rite. 

The State Security Council and the cabinet convened an emergency meeting to 
discuss arrangements for the funeral as well as how to handle the immediate 
transitional period. 

A public statement issued by the meeting, rapidly published on the government’s 
website, reflected the huge loss of a figure who dominated the country for the 
15 years since Turkmenistan became independent. It spoke of the “unshakeable 
and infinite” love the people had for their leader, and said they would devote 
themselves “eternally” to carrying his policies to completion.

But there were also some hints that the change might have a few rocky moments. 

An official report of the meeting said one of its objective was to consider 
“measures to maintain social stability and law and order”, and urged the nation 
to display “resilience, courage and cohesion” at a difficult time.  Such 
remarks are out of character for a regime which - when the president was alive 
- never let slip any suggestion that popular unrest was even a remote 
possibility.

The joint meeting appointed Deputy Prime Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, 
who is also health minister, as acting president. 

This came as a surprise, since the constitution delegates that role 
automatically to the speaker of the Mejlis or parliament, currently Ovezgeldy 
Ataev. 

However, the official report of the meeting stated that Ataev was ruled out 
because the prosecutors had brought a criminal case against him. It did not 
make it clear when this prosecution was brought, but since it had not been 
previously reported, the indications are that it happened in the hours after 
Niazov died. 

Since the president was simultanously prime minister and head of the Halk 
Maslakhaty, an occasional national congress invested with more legislative 
powers than parliament itself, Berdymukhammedov was the next in line in the 
hierarchy. Under the constitution, he is not supposed to stand for president. 
An election should take place within two months.

Eduard Poletaev, a Kazakstan-based political scientist, told the NBCentralAsia 
news agency that the neatest solution would be for some leader or political 
grouping to emerge from the current establishment and assert control. 

However, given the high turnover of ministers due to sackings and arrests, and 
the excessive deference officials were required to show Niazov, few senior 
politicians in office are well known, and none is an obvious candidate to 
succeed him. 

Poletaev warned that the situation could also descend into anarchy, not least 
because the general climate of fear and denunciation created under Niazov has 
made people mistrustful of one another. In addition, the regional and tribal 
groupings that were kept firmly squashed under Niyazov’s one-man rule may now 
rear their heads – using past or present politicians to represent them. 

Turkmenistan expert Mars Sariev made the point that the role played by these 
regional elites is all the more important because there are no other political 
institutions. 

One possible confrontation, according to Sariev, would pit the Ahal regional 
grouping - to which Niazov belonged, and whose region is home to the capital 
Ashgabat - against leaders from Mary region in the southeast, who have the 
advantage that lucrative gas reserves are located in their area. 

Sariev predicted that centrifugal forces could come into play in other regions, 
too, and Turkmenistan might even be at risk of dividing unto several entities. 

In the absence of a strong government or parliament, some analysts told 
NBCentralAsia that the security services might step in, perhaps forming some 
kind of interim administration that would maintain control while facilitating 
deal-making among the various regional elites. The military and the interior 
ministry may be less in a position to do this than the Ministry of National 
Security, a powerful organisation that carries on surveillance and persecution 
in the same vein as its predecessor, the Soviet KGB. 

Meanwhile, the Turkmen opposition - scattered across Russia and Europe - has 
sensed that its time may have come at last. Leaders are even planning a swift 
return to Turkmenistan. As well as old-style dissidents, the opposition 
contains former officials such as the Moscow-based Avdy Kuliev who might make 
heavyweight contenders if they were allowed to re-enter domestic politics.  

Of all the countries with an interest in what happens next in Turkmenistan, it 
is Russia that will be watching developments with the keenest eye. The Russian 
corporation Gazprom buys some of Turkmenistan’s natural gas and provides the 
pipeline network that allows it to export to other countries such as Ukraine. 

Moscow’s public discourse with Niazov’s government has been robust and 
occasionally frosty over the years, with friction caused by Turkmenistan’s 
increasingly isolationist policies, its treatment of the ethnic Russian 
minority, as well as wrangling over the gas price. 

There was no outpouring of Russian grief at the demise of this Soviet-era 
figure who took charge of Turkmenistan seven years before the USSR came to an 
end. 

A statement from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke of Moscow’s desire for a 
legitimate transition and continuity in bilateral relations. “We hope that a 
new leadership will act in the interests of cooperation with Russia, and of the 
region as a whole,” he said.


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